Marilyn Carlson Nelson

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 November, 2011, 12:00am


FUNCTIONAL FAMILY Growing up [in the United States], we never dreamt we would visit China. But I have made wonderful friends here. I particularly like the fact that there are many family businesses. Our company involves the whole family. I have three children; we lost a daughter. I wish the CEOs of publicly held companies would build things to last and build long-term trust. The tenure of a CEO now is often only four to five years. I become impatient with leaders who've been self-interested. We employ 170,000 people around the world [in hotels, restaurants and other businesses]. We now have the first non-family CEO of Carlson.

UP TO THE CHALLENGE I grew up with my sister in Minneapolis, Minnesota. My grandfather was a first-generation [Swedish immigrant]. Mum was all about unconditional love while my Dad set high challenges. I remember how exciting it was to have an entrepreneurial father. He was a salesman for Proctor & Gamble and then came home and announced he was setting up his company. He borrowed money from the landlord and set up the Gold Bond Stamp Company in 1938, which was a loyalty company that issued stamps for grocers and service stations. The company was like having another sibling and we competed a bit for resources. If we wanted to order dessert, Dad would talk to us about returns on our investment. We even had to vote whether we could go on holiday. It was three to one for the vacation. That's when I learned a lot about the power of the CEO's vote. In the late 1960s, he entered the hotel and travel business. In 2005, I was given an international award as a women's business leader at a ceremony organised by [former-Soviet Union president] Mikhail Gorbachev in Austria.

WOMAN POWER When I graduated, there were very few women in leadership roles. I became a security analyst for a stockbroker. I signed my name M.C. Nelson [to disguise my gender]. But, to be honest, at that time [1962], I was thrilled to be working there. I had a private office. I was pregnant - at a time when no woman should be seen in that condition. Then the Civil Rights Act of 1964 meant women could finally take a loan. I would have called myself George [if it had been necessary]; I was in the game, using my brain and my education. Today only 7 per cent of public companies in the United States are led by women. We can do so much better. When women become pregnant, on average they are away for two years and they don't tend to go back to the same company. [Carlson is recognised as a leading organisation for women.]

COPING WITH LOSS Obviously, losing our daughter was a very low point. She was 19. She was a middle child. She was the one who would say, 'Look at the sunrise, it's so beautiful.' She was high energy, loving, enthusiastic and embraced life. At first, people give you all the psychology books about all the stages of grief and anger. You think you are an intelligent person and that you can read all about it and not go through it. But you go through them. My husband and I clung together, this kind of thing can break up a family, even though we probably grieved differently. Then we decided the only way we could make sense of it was to really try to use the time we had, which was time she didn't have. That seems the biggest tragedy, when young people die, it's not the right timing. I promised I would never deny a day of my age, because it was a day she didn't get. So I would be grateful.

TEAM WORKS [To solve] the societal problems we face, we need cross-sector teams. As business people, we need to work with the government and the civic sector. To look at environmental issues - we have an upcoming shortage of water - we need to find common ground and invest in these issues for the common good. In 2000, we co-founded with Queen Silvia of Sweden the World Childhood Foundation, which is directed at street children. It was co-founded [by several businesses]. As we developed these projects to help children find shelter, to get them into some kind of schooling and vocational training, we became aware they were extremely vulnerable to being trafficked. Anyone who rationalises it's happening elsewhere is wrong. It can be children in an American suburb who have run away, or been given false promises. I was really disturbed by it. Queen Silvia was telling me how this plays out across borders, and in hotels - this wonderful platform we are so proud of, our hotel industry. We were encouraged to sign a United Nations convention, End Child Prostitution and Trafficking. My people said: 'You're crazy! We don't even want our name mentioned with this. It's not anything that has anything to do with us.' But I said, 'It does, these children will grow up with our children.' So we've trained our hotel managers on what to watch for and what numbers to call. Once these children have been used in this way, it is so difficult to rehabilitate them. I just hope we can draw the circle bigger and draw them into our hearts.